Intentionality and Apologism (or In Defense of Apologism)

I intend to make a simple point: Apologism isn’t bad. In fact, it’s necessary to correct for the human tendency to ascribe intentionality when it’s not there.

Psychological research has demonstrated that when there are morally bad* “side-effects” to a particular purposive (i.e. goal-directed) action taken by Person A, individuals ascribe those side-effects as being intended by Person A. When those side-effects are morally good, meanwhile, individuals generally believe that Person A did not intend the side effect.

*Morally bad in a very generic “murder = bad” sense.

The common example provided in Knobe (2003) is the board chairman whose actions results in unforeseen environmental consequences; if the environmental consequence is beneficial to the environment, people tend not to ascribe intentionality to the chairman, but if it’s harmful, people tend to ascribe intentionality to the chairman. Leslie et al. (2006) have shown that this so-called “Side-Effect Effect” (heretofore referred to as the “Intentionality Effect” since I don’t like the “Effect Effect” repetition) exists in young children as well, giving credence to the notion that this effect is a natural part of human psychology.

Before I move on to link this Intentionality Effect to apologism, I need to make one very—one might even say extremely—reasonable assumption. That is, that there is an overascription of intentionality to individuals whose actions result in negative side-effects. That doesn’t mean every negative side-effect is not intended or at least contemplated; just that, in general, individuals tend to read into intentionality when it’s not really there.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines apologism as “a defence or excuse, a speech or written answer made in justification of anyone.”  I think apologism, in its normal use, tends to have a negative connotation embedded in it: the idea that apologists are defending something or someone that ought not to be defended. “Don’t listen to him; he’s just a Chavez apologist!” We use words like defender, backer, or champion when using the term positively.

My argument is that even under this narrower definition of apologism, apologism is, on the whole, a good thing. When we have systematic cognitive flaws, we should generally champion* behaviors and policies that help to minimize these flaws. I earlier discussed the tendency of individuals to be much more likely to say yes to something if it is opt-out rather than opt-in. A solution to this is to make that something neither opt-in nor opt-out and force the responder to actually think by requiring them to circle “yes” or “no.”  This policy encourages rational thought rather than lazy submission to defaults.

*Not apologize for!

Likewise, apologism is a behavior that should help correct the Intentionality Effect, a cognitive flaw. Apologism tends to result in the opposite of the Intentionality Effect; apologists tend to under-ascribe intentionality to morally bad behaviors or, at least, claim that the behaviors are not that bad. The first Google News search result I found for “apologist” did just this, arguing that Tiger Woods is just doing what most rich mega-stars do: Living up to his squeaky-clean image was an unfair expectation. George W. Bush apologists argue that he really just intended to keep America safe—not to engage in nation-building—when he decided to invade Iraq on the rationale of Saddam’s possessing dangerous WMDs.

Both of these forms of apologism—whether you agree with there conclusions or not—are beneficial because they encourage the anti-apologists to defend their claims about intention or their claims about moral badness. Just like false speech can be beneficial for forcing those promoting truth to think hard about the logical extremes of his argument, apologism can be beneficial not just because it’s correct but also because it forces non-apologists to confront the Intentionality Effect and defend their ascription of intentionality in a particular situation.

That’s my argument, but let me discuss some qualifications:

First, people talk past each other. Vehement liberals often don’t take the George W. Bush apologists’ arguments seriously and vice versa. To say that apologism “forces” them to think about intention, then, is a little strong. At the very least, though, apologism may encourage moderates on any particular issue to reconsider their view or at least their particular view about intentionality.

Second, non-intentional actions are morally blameworthy too. The Chairman who doesn’t intend to damage another’s property but does so negligently is also morally blameworthy; his inaction is blameworthy. So, when I assummed that there is an over-ascription of intentionality for actions that result in negative side-effects, it’s important to note that the level of over-ascription is more than the level of over-ascription of blame. That is, there are still blameworthy individuals who shouldn’t be deemed as intending a particular bad end even though their negligence resulted in it. This is an important qualification but doesn’t do much to undermine my overall argument since it’s generally agreed that negligent wrongs—even if they render one morally blameworthy—are less condemnable than intentional wrongs. So, if apologism leads to debate, which ultimately just leads to the non-apologist viewing a particular wrong as negligent rather than intentional, that could be a good result too.

Third, apologism doesn’t always have to do with intention. Someone  could be a cupcake apologist (like commenter “janechong”) and need not discuss intention at all. This is a totally valid qualification. My point is just that a good amount of apologism involves the intentionality problem and the subsequent evaluation of moral blameworthiness.

So, the next time you are about to criticize someone for being a “[Insert objectionable Person/Food/Ideology here] Apologist” just think, “Oh wait, this apologism is canceling out the Intentionality Effect!” and then talk about something on the lighter side instead, like buttons.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex Harris on March 23, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    Are you arguing that apologism really cancels out the Intentionality Effect? As you admit, it’s a pretty blunt tool, since (1) apologism is very often not about intention and (2) people still have cognitive dissonance so getting ONE person to apologize doesn’t negate the Intentionality Effect in another. It seems like your argument is more that it’s good to have apologists to challenge the assumptions of those of us biased with the Intentionality Effect. But this suggests that ANY time we have possibly inaccurate (or is it only systematically biased?) assumptions, we should encourage people to say the opposite of what we think, because then our assumptions will be challenged. So, why not celebrate all contrarians? Is this just a particular example of a more general in Defense of Contrarianism?


  2. Posted by Josh on March 23, 2010 at 10:54 PM

    You accurately say: “It seems like your argument is more that it’s good to have apologists to challenge the assumptions of those of us biased with the Intentionality Effect.”

    I would say this is more than a general defense of contrarianism for the reason you imply: I think, despite its admitted bluntness, apologism is often pretty squarely is responding to system erroneous ascriptions of intentionality and that’s good.

    There are instances of contrarianism that are systematically based on cognitive biases too and I would probably condemn those: so, I don’t know, if a contrarian position on a particular issues is motivated by anti-foreigner bias, I wouldn’t support it just because it’s contrarian.


  3. […] Mariano Rivera, from The Sopranos to the Old Testament to the Food Network, from the 1999 NLCS to apologism to David Foster Wallace. We’ve ranked the Bill of Rights, the work of Bob Dylan, and everything […]


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